I find it’s always weird how you stumble onto the books you read – recommendations from friends, book reviews, cool covers, whatever. About a year or so ago, as I was wilting in the white heat of a swimming pool in Trinidad, I chanced upon an interview on the American radio station, NPR. The interviewer was chatting with one Noah Charney about his recently published book, “Stealing the Mystic Lamb”. It sounded interesting and lead me to stumble into this grippingly told story of art, theft and the heart-stoppingly near end of the Western canon.
Jan van Eyck, back in the 1426 was one of the first adopters of the radical new style of painting – using oils instead of tempura. This new type of paint brought a glossiness and life to art as had never been seen before. Its crowning glory was what would become regarded as the most important painting in the world (not sure who makes these kind of pronouncements): a twelve panelled masterpiece created for the cathedral of Ghent – “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”; a painting that Erwin Panofsky described as “one that made man privy to God’s view of the world”
The story of this actual painting is itself fascinating. These kinds of religious paintings were usually the result of inputs from multiple scholars. They had to ensure that the location of heavenly doves, the choice of decorative flowers, the delicate curl of adoring hands and the relative size of people to saints were exactly right according to religious doctrine. Apparently, in painting it, van Eyck used such thinly, delicately hammered gold-leaf to adorn the rich folds of his Madonna’s gowns that to get the gold onto the painting, he had to rub his brushes in his hair (his fingertips were too oily and would immediately cause the gold to disintegrate) so that the static electricity generated would levitate the metal into place.
But that’s not the half of it. Point is, this painting had been stolen and recovered thirteen times. Now this is no wall painting that you can sneak under your coat. This monster weighs two tons. The book is – ostensibly – the story of the people and processes used to protect and purloin it. But it’s a story about art theft in general and Hitler’s crazed belief that one of the panels contained a code that would lead him to the Arma Christi (you know the Arma Christi: Christ’s crown of thorns and the Spear of Destiny). He believed that it would give him supernatural powers. It all sounds like “Raiders of the Lost Art”
Indeed, Hitler had a special department of scholars dedicated to finding this. Not so far fetched when you consider that he also had a department searching for Thule in Iceland (You know Thule – it’s where there is a band of telepathic faeries.) But where was the damn Altarpiece? It had actually been stolen by the Nazis and secreted in a chateau in Paris. But then it disappeared. Poof, into thin air. Rumors at the time was that a group of priests, in the dead of night, moved the large cloth wrapped panels in mule carriages to a secret location and then managed to persuade the Nazis that the English had taken the paintings to England for safe-keeping.
Art theft for the Nazis was at times almost as consuming a mission as world dominance. Hermann Goring in particular, was ravenous, stealing even from his fuhrer.
It was Hitler’s dream (he did after all see himself as an artist) that he would build the ultimate museum of art in Linz, his hometown in Austria. That place would be the repository for the Western canon (or at least those that passed the test of Nazi purity). His greatest prize would be the Ghent Altarpiece. As a result, as the war and theft proceeded, his staff catalogued (the Nazis were great cataloguers) and collected vast hordes of stolen art, stored in a variety of sites – castles, monasteries, mines. The largest of these sites (some 12, 000 works, including Michaelangelos, Titians, da Vincis) was six stories underground in a heavily guarded Austrian salt mine – Alt Aussee. Problem was, as the war began to wind down, as Hitler fled into hiding and as the storm-troopers began to give themselves up in clots of surrender, one fanatical guard – ex-concentration camp commandante, August Eigruber, took it upon himself to channel Hitler’s unspoken wishes: destroy the art! He booby trapped the mine and only in the nick of time (when last did you read a book about art history that has the page-turning excitement of a thriller?) was the art saved, thanks to a small army of Austrian miners turned saboteurs and a group of allies called the Monuments Men (which is the story of my next book review)
“Stealing the Mystic Lamb” is the kind of book you close and heave a sigh of relief – that we still have the art; much of which is of course now housed in the Louvre (which, as the book shows us, was itself a chateau that had been stolen from its owners during the French revolution and given over to house and display – to the ‘people’ – all the art stolen during that period. Indeed, the height at which art is hung in museums even now was set by the curator of the time to suit Napoleon’s height.)
So, all very fascinating, thanks to sitting by a pool and listening to NPR.